By Janette Deacon and Neville Agnew

One of the greatest challenges for heritage conservation professionals is to develop strategies that find a balance between polar opposites. In the case of ancient rock art conservation (conservation of paintings and engravings on natural rock surfaces), we try to retain the significance of sites by protecting the original fabric on the one hand, while promoting controlled public access, on the other. This approach is undertaken with the knowledge that public access invariably places the rock art at greater risk from damage, but we are motivated by the fact that people will only care about the conservation of heritage places if they are aware of them.

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In many countries the preferred option for protecting rock art is to avoid publicizing it, so that only those most interested will take the trouble to see it. While this reduces the risk of human-caused damage, the down side to this approach is that the general public is less likely to support public funding of rock art conservation if it remains unaware of the art's significance. Furthermore, in times of economic pressure, this option comes under strain as uninformed tourism operators, communities, property owners, and managers are tempted to consider ways of encouraging even the uninterested to visit the paintings or engravings, without first putting in place measures to protect the art.

Some important sites have been completely closed to the public, such as Cosquer, Chauvet, and Lascaux caves in France, but unless government funding is available to protect a site in perpetuity, this option is unsustainable—the cost of protection becomes too onerous, and tourism or neglect seem the only alternatives.

In places where it is common practice to generate income from visitors to cover the costs of site protection, sustainable tourism and capacity building have become accepted strategies in the current rock art conservation paradigm. Sustainability is more than economics, however. It includes social dynamics that involve all of the relevant people in decision making, as well as the development of appropriate conservation methods.

Over the past two decades, the Getty Conservation Institute has facilitated conservation and training programs to improve the management of rock art sites, particularly in the Americas and in Australia. The lessons learned from these programs have been valuable in structuring the Institute's most recent involvement in rock art conservation—the Southern African Rock Art Project. The objective of this project is to establish a long-term program that will create momentum for best practices in rock art preservation, conservation, accessibility, and management in the southern African region, from Tanzania in the north to South Africa in the south. The project's strategy is to invest in people rather than in infrastructure, with the expectation that if enough people are aware of the fragility, meaning, and heritage values of the art, and are trained in the management and interpretation of rock art sites, it will be easier to ensure that best practice methods are implemented.

Building on a Regional Network

In 2003 the GCI commissioned a feasibility study to identify one or more nationally or provincially managed rock art sites in South Africa that could be developed for sustainable tourism and could serve as a model for similar sites in the region.

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The GCI's work builds on the network already established by the Southern African Rock Art Project (SARAP), a regional cooperative that assisted countries in becoming signatories to the World Heritage Convention and in identifying at least one rock art site in their country for nomination to the World Heritage List. SARAP held a series of workshops on the nomination process, as well as courses on rock art site management plans and surveys in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana, and Namibia. Since SARAP's inception in 1998, rock art sites in South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Tanzania have been inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage List, and another site has been nominated to the list by Namibia. Further workshops and courses will be arranged, as required, to make use of the expertise developed.

The intent of the GCI's feasibility study was to explore ways whereby the Institute's participation could strengthen and consolidate the sarap network, and to study the possibility of establishing regular training opportunities to build capacity at one or more places where rock art (a) was already managed by national or provincial government structures; (b) was open to the public and significant enough to be a World Heritage, national, or provincial heritage site; and (c) could accommodate at least twenty trainees for courses and workshops.

At the completion of the study, two World Heritage Sites were selected: the Mapungubwe National Park on the southern bank of the Limpopo River, which forms the northern border of South Africa with Botswana and Zimbabwe; and the Cederberg Wilderness Area in the southwest of South Africa, about two hundred kilometers north of Cape Town. These sites were selected because they best fit the criteria of the feasibility study. They both:

  • have several paintings or engravings that offer high-quality rock art in reasonable quantity;
  • are situated in a local, provincial, or national park with stable management;
  • have an enthusiastic management structure that is prepared to offer quality assistance and commitment on a partnership basis;
  • include some conservation problems that offer challenges for research and development;
  • are reasonably easy to incorporate into existing educational and/or tourism structures in the region; and
  • have enough challenges to warrant inviting rock art site managers from other southern African countries to participate in the development program. They would actively participate, establish mutual contacts, and see the evolution of a viable project firsthand.

Defining Social and Conservation Responsibilities

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In August 2004 a meeting of relevant stakeholders in the Southern African Rock Art Project—including representatives of South African National Parks (SANParks); the Western Cape Department of Nature Conservation (CapeNature); the Clanwilliam Living Landscape Project based at the University of Cape Town; the Rock Art Research Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg; and the Tanzanian Department of Antiquities—was held at the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles to establish short- and long-term objectives for the project. Participants from southern African countries, other than South Africa, attended the meeting with travel assistance from the World Heritage Fund.

As economic responsibilities at Mapungubwe and the Cederberg are handled by SANParks and CapeNature respectively, training, conservation, and stakeholder relationships were identified as the key issues that needed to be addressed at these sites.

At this meeting the following objectives were identified:

  • create momentum to network and enhance the preservation, appreciation, and accessibility of rock art in a sustainable way;
  • strengthen contacts between professionals in the southern African subcontinent; and
  • offer opportunities for capacity building through workshops and courses.

The agreed-upon strategy at both sites is to arrange annual workshops and training courses to build capacity among staff in national parks and provincial nature reserves in all southern African countries and to also involve other stakeholders responsible for rock art promotion and management. The activities will be evaluated with input from the participants, in order to ensure that project objectives are met.

To achieve this, collaborative links were established between the GCI, the South African Heritage Resources Agency, SANParks, CapeNature, the Rock Art Research Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and the Clanwilliam Living Landscape Project, in the Cederberg Wilderness Area.

Training Courses

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The first initiative was a three-week accredited course in rock art tour guiding in August 2005, based at the Clanwilliam Living Landscape Project. The project was initiated by Professor John Parkington to inform local schools and the public about the archaeological significance of the Cederberg.

In conjunction with the Clanwilliam project, the University of Cape Town installed a dormitory, kitchen, craft shop, and lecture room, which are used to train local people in various skills, including crafts, catering, and tour guiding. These facilities were used for the nineteen tour guide course participants from the Cederberg area and surrounding districts. Most of the participants were actively involved in tourism, and several were representatives of the San community in South Africa; three were from neighboring Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Tanzania. The participants learned basic information about the past inhabitants of the Cederberg, how the rock art tradition fit into the bigger picture of Stone Age life, and how to identify themes in the rock paintings of the region. They also learned to identify major plant families, animals and their tracks, and geological formations, and they learned to talk about the history, knowledge, and memories of indigenous people of the area. Their knowledge level was assessed by the Cape Peninsula University of Technology through regular quizzes, a written examination, practical demonstrations in the field, and evaluation of communication skills. Seventeen participants received certificates of accreditation, and twelve are presently earning an income directly from rock art or related tourism. Of the remaining, four are employed as field rangers or site managers by CapeNature, and one is employed part-time as a translator at the South African San Institute.

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The second activity was a two-week workshop on rock art site management plans, held August—September 2005 at Mapungubwe National Park. The twenty participants were drawn mainly from Mapungubwe and other national parks, and from provincial nature conservation and heritage organizations in South Africa, with four from Namibia, Botswana, Tanzania, and Zambia. They were divided into four groups, each group being responsible for drawing up a conservation management plan for a rock art site. An instruction manual was provided to allow participants to follow the process developed for heritage site management plans in Australia. At the end of the workshop, four complete draft management plans and four draft information leaflets were presented to the manager of the park for implementation.

The Mapungubwe workshop was aimed at a different management level than the tour guide course, and all the participants work either for a national or a provincial park with rock art sites. In their evaluation, participants were especially appreciative of the knowledge they gained about rock art and about the process for management planning. Their meeting with local stakeholders, such as property owners, academics, and community representatives, was also cited as a highlight because it helped them to identify the major issues regarding rock art tourism in the region.

In 2006 the venues for the two activities were reversed—the tour guide course took place at Mapungubwe, while the management-planning workshop took place in Clanwilliam. Judging from the enthusiastic response of participants, a network of well-informed rock art site managers and tour guides will soon be operating in the southern African region in national and provincial parks that have rock art sites open to the public.

Addressing the Issues

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The rock art of the southern African subcontinent has been securely dated as far back as twenty-seven thousand five hundred years before the present. It comprises a vast body of heritage sites, most of which date to between four thousand and one thousand years ago. This extraordinary wealth of heritage is at grave risk. Every year more sites are damaged or lost due to development, vandalism, and natural causes. This is a concern because part of the record of human occupation, way of life, and belief systems is being expunged.

The Southern African Rock Art Project is addressing these issues by building regional professional capacity, reaching out to local communities to train guides, and raising public awareness. In 2007, presentation and interpretation plans will be developed for selected sites at Mapungubwe and the Cederberg, to be implemented by the site authorities. Beyond that date an evaluation of the impact and sustainability of the initiative will be undertaken and disseminated regionally. Results of the evaluation will be considered in any subsequent initiatives.

Janette Deacon is the former head of the Professional Services Division of the National Monuments Council in South Africa and has long been involved in rock art site management in the southern African region. Neville Agnew is principal project specialist with GCI Field Projects and is leading the Institute's Southern Africa Rock Art Project.

Mapungubwe National Park, which comprises about thirty thousand hectares, was where the first powerful indigenous Iron Age kingdom in southern Africa flourished. Established by the cultural ancestors of the present-day Shona and Venda peoples between 900 and 1300, it was a precursor to the better-known kingdom of Great Zimbabwe. Evidence for its history is preserved in over four hundred archaeological sites. The kingdom dispersed after 1300, new social and political alliances were formed, and the center of regional power shifted to Great Zimbabwe. The one hundred or more rock art sites in the Mapungubwe National Park document the beliefs and social practices of the Stone Age hunter-gatherers and the early Khoekhoe herders who preceded the Iron Age kingdom in the valley. The rock art sites offer a broad view of the cultural and historical complexity of the region, particularly in the animal metaphors that are part of the belief system of the San (Bushman) peoples, whose descendants practice healing and rainmaking in the Kalahari region today.

Cederberg Wilderness Area, a provincial nature reserve of seventy-one thousand hectares, is one of eight properties that make up a World Heritage Site known as the Cape Floral Region Protected Areas. The Cape Floral Region, one of the world's eighteen biodiversity hot spots, is one of the richest areas of floral diversity and endemism in the world, with unique ecological and biological processes associated with the evolution of the so-called Fynbos Biome, a Mediterranean-type vegetation similar to the chaparral in California. The CWA, managed by CapeNature, includes more than 110 rock art sites.